Sociologist Katherine Newman

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Twenty years after the fall of apartheid and the first free elections in South Africa, Newman takes a look at the country today and discusses her text, After Freedom.

Since 2010, Katherine Newman, a widely published expert on poverty and the working poor, has been dean of Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, where she's also a sociology professor. She oversees 22 academic departments and 10 interdepartmental programs, from the natural sciences to the humanities, social sciences and the arts. She's also taught at UC Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton and is the author of 12 books, including The Accordion Family and The Missing Class. In her latest, After Freedom, she and her co-author look at how the generation that came of age in post-apartheid South Africa is grappling with a tenuous democracy in a globalized economy.


Tavis: Twenty years after the first free elections were held in South Africa, the country still struggles with economic disparities and political discord – difficulties that are not unique, obviously, to South Africa I might add.

But a new book titled “After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa” delves into the unique challenges of this newly emerged democracy.

It’s co-written by sociologist Dr. Katherine Newman, and South Africa expert, Ariane De Lannoy. Dr. Newman, though, is a professor and former dean at Johns Hopkins University, and has written widely on poverty and the working poor. Dr. Newman, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Katherine Newman: Delighted to be here.

Tavis: What do you – I’ll jump into the text in a second. Just broadly speaking, what do you make of South Africa 20 years after these free elections?

Newman: Well it is a democracy, and that matters. It has functioning democratic institutions. You can’t say that about every country to the north of them. But it’s a very divided country, especially more by class now even than raced used to be all by itself.

So it’s a very troubled country, but it’s also a place that many people see as a beacon of human rights and rule of law, which is why so many people mass across the borders to come there.

Tavis: Yeah. I’m not naïve in asking this question, but how did a country that was so, to your point, divided by race so quickly also become divided by class?

Newman: Because in the aftermath of apartheid, some people did very well, including a lot of Black Africans, and they rocketed past their poorer brethren who are by far the more numerous.

But you’ve got people who are now in NGOs and in government, and they’ve become movie stars and other kinds of people that everybody admires while millions of people are way below the U.N. poverty line. So those class divisions really matter now, and it isn’t just race anymore.

Tavis: The best of times, the worst of times, if I can borrow that phrase. Tell me what the best of South Africa looks like these days, and then we’ll talk about the worst.

Newman: The generation I was interested I for this book were children when apartheid fell apart. So they have seen the rise of a democratic society. They’ve lost a lot of faith in the ruling party of the ANC, and they’re looking for an alternative.

But they are looking for that alternative, and they do believe in the future of their country, and that’s true whether they’re white or so-called “colored” or Black, and they’re committed to the country’s future.

But they’re also very troubled by its present. They were promised a lot of things. Many of those things have not come to pass. So the sort of expectations people had when apartheid fell were very, very high, because there was decades and decades of oppression and deprivation. They thought things would get better fast, and they haven’t been fast enough.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that point, because it’s obvious enough, but I think it ought to be made more and more often, which is that it’s only been 20 years. Here we are, we’ve been here –

Newman: Exactly.

Tavis: We’ve been doing this a little longer than 20 years in the USA, and pardon my English, we still ain’t got it right. We ain’t got it right on race, we ain’t got it right on class, we haven’t got it right on gender.

We still have our own issues. So democracy isn’t easy, as you know. Democracy is hard. But then when you have these humongous expectations and aspirations 20 years ago, there’s no way that any of that can be realized, significantly at least, in 20 years. So I wonder if the story, if we’re trying to write the story too soon.

Newman: Well I thought the 20th anniversary would be a time when people would be asking these questions, so it was worth telling what part of the story we could see.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Newman: But I think we do have to remember what a mountain of problems South Africa faced when it first became a free nation. Most people were illiterate. The vast majority of children weren’t in school. There were people that had been without homes for decades. There were folks who’d been stuck in labor camps.

It took all this time to try and make the progress they have, and an enormous amount of progress has been made. That should not be forgotten. The ANC has a lot to be proud of, but there’s just such a long way to go.

So depending on whether you’re the older generation that’s seen the progress or the younger generation that feels like there’s a lot left to be done, it’s a country that means different things to different people.

Tavis: Not that Madiba, not that Mandela was in power when he died, but just his very presence in the country is meaningful in so many ways, on so many levels. What’s your – fear may be too strong a word, but give me your angst about a south – to the extent you have any – about a South Africa post-Mandela’s presence.

Newman: There is no obvious successor to Mandela. There is no one that carries the kind of moral authority that he has or the sort of shining beacon of certainty about the future and how it should be conducted.

So it’s a country very much searching for a way forward, and it doesn’t really see one. The ANC is no longer as popular as it used to be, but it continues to win elections because the alternatives are almost absent from the scene.

So it’s a country that a lot of its inhabitants feel very nervous about. They look at the failed states to the north, they look at Zimbabwe, they look at Somalia, and they think, “Is that going to be our future?

Whether they’re white or Black, people really worry about that. They worry about corruption; they worry about whether the government’s capable of actually doing very much.

At the same time they know that relative to many other parts of Africa they’re very fortunate. It’s the richest country, and also the most unequal country, on the continent.

Tavis: I don’t want to get into trying to critique the two presidents since Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, because you’re right – nobody can measure up to what Mandela was, given what Mandela’s back story is.

But how do people feel, Black South Africans, about their political leadership since Mandela?

Newman: They don’t feel very good about it, to be honest, and that is a very tall mountain to climb and a hard act to follow.

Tavis: Mandela had his failings as president.

Newman: He did.

Tavis: He wasn’t – we could critique him, in love. There’s some things that he didn’t get right.

Newman: Well that’s true, and there are many presidents that don’t. But I think in general they feel like there isn’t anybody that’s holding on to the same moral compass he had.

He had a very straight sense of true north, of where he was headed and where he thought the country should go. Multiracialism was very important to him. Since then, the sort of strong tones of nationalism have been creeping in.

To his left there is a very angry, dispossessed group of millions and millions of people who’ve seen very little to come out of the post-apartheid period. To his right there are the people who criticized him and the party for where it was headed.

So it’s a country that’s very deeply divided without a strong sense of the leadership to follow. Hence it’s a giant question mark, is what I would say.

Tavis: So if I’m a Black South African, and you’ve made this point a couple times now. Let me come straight ahead to it. This notion of what my alternative is beyond the ANC.

If you’re a South African who wants the best for your country, and you believe in voting and exercising your right to vote, beyond the ANC – I know they’re frustrated with that and getting more frustrated – but what are the options?

Newman: Well for a short time it looked like the Democratic Alliance was an option. That is a Western Cape party. It was originally a white-dominated party, and that fell apart as an option, in part because of that legacy.

So I think the scary thing is they don’t see much of an alternative. At the same time, they don’t see this as a very credible positive right now. So there aren’t too many possibilities, really, and that’s scaring people.

At the same time, there is a strong sense that there’s got to be a way forward. It’s the only country in the southern region of Africa where there’s any possibility for the kind of reconstruction that needs to be done.

So it’s not – you can’t point to a really good solution. You can’t point to leaders that people have confidence in, and it may take an entirely new generation that’s not trying to build its credibility based on the revolution of the past, but just comes at this from an entirely new dialogue.

Tavis: Is there no thought, no credence in the future, given to the creation of another party that Black South Africans feel serves them, that has a name different than ANC?

Newman: You don’t see it right now, as I said. The leading contender was the Democratic Alliance for a while. Helen Zilly is the leader of the Democratic Alliance, but it suffers from a tainted past.

So every so often it tries to reach out to Black leadership to form an alternative, and it lasts for about three weeks and then it all falls apart. So what you’re seeing instead is people defecting by not voting.

So right after – in the first free election the voting rate was beyond anything we’ve ever seen in the U.S. People were nine hours –

Tavis: In lines for – yeah.

Newman: – standing in line to vote. They really treasured that right, and it’s just declined and declined and declined. So people are sort of sitting it out. Now this shocks the older generation. They gave everything for the right to vote.

But their children are looking back and saying, “You know what? I don’t feel such strong allegiance to the ANC. I see people on the take, I see them building huge houses, I see them taking our money and running with it, and I don’t see anybody fighting for the common man.

That’s the big democratic deficit.

Tavis: To your point, Dr. Newman, about the common man, what about these bread-and-butter issues? Because the truth of the matter is no matter what part of the world you go in, the bread-and-butter issues are the same everywhere: Jobs, education, roads, those kinds of basic, everyday life issue.

What do we make of the progress, or lack thereof, made on those issues 20 years later?

Newman: Well I actually think there has been an extraordinary amount of progress, but there’s just still so much left to be done. So you still have thousands and thousands of people with no homes who are expecting the government to build homes.

You’ve got people without electricity, without sanitation. In the townships where I spent time to write this book, you’ve got people who have to leave these wood huts at night to go use a common latrine, and they’re at risk for being assaulted on the way, and that’s not what they want for themselves or for their children.

So for them there is a very, very long way to go, and you’re right, the bread-and-butter issues matter, which is why you see strikes – strikes that are striking for sanitation or electricity, strikes that are for fair wages in the mining sector. All of those things are symbols and signs of how much has yet to be done.

Tavis: I don’t mean to demonize the ANC with this particular question, but it sort of reminds me of the position that – this is my own assessment – the position that Black folk in this country have been in for a long time, which is that we are ignored by one party, the Republican Party, Black voters, taken for granted by the Democratic Party because they know we ain’t going nowhere.

That’s pretty much what you said about Black South Africans. The ANC is their only option right now, so people end up sitting it out and not voting, but the ANC really knows that they ain’t going nowhere.

So how, then, does the ANC get pushed to do better on these bread-and-butter issues on behalf of Black South Africans if there’s no leverage to hold them accountable?

Newman: Well I hate to say it, but riots are leverage, strikes are leverage, and that is the main weapon that’s being used right now, because there really isn’t a credible political alternative that’s pushing them.

But public outrage, that matters. International standards, that matters. People watch those rising poverty rates, and there is a sense of push there. I think it’s fair to say that Zuma actually really does care about these issues, but the slow speed is a consequence of just an unmovable mountain.

Tavis: I know you’re headed to South Africa to be there for the actual anniversary of these free elections 20 years ago. I take it, though, that all things considered, this will be a moment of huge celebration inside the country.

Newman: I think it will be. It’ll be a moment of celebration and reflection, partly because of Mandela’s passing and the questions that poses about the future. But again, when we compare South Africa’s situation to the countries that immediately are north of it, with thousands of refugees flowing across that border seeking just the right to live, because they’ve been through horrendous civil wars, there is a sense that South Africa did manage this transition and become a democratic society.

It’s just not a perfect democracy, but who has a perfect democracy, Tavis? We don’t.

Tavis: Don’t we know that, yeah. The book is called “After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa,” co-written by Dr. Katherine S. Newman. Dr. Newman, good to have you on the program, and thanks for the text.

Newman: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Tavis: My delight.

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Last modified: April 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm